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Criticism of Halden has been muted, but it does exist. At the moment, foreigners account for 32% of Norway's prison population, and Per Sandberg, deputy leader of the conservative Progress Party, worries that Halden's high standard will lure more organized crime to the country. "Foreign criminals are coming to Norway because they know there are good facilities for them and shorter sentences compared to those in Romania or Bulgaria," he says. While he's not thrilled that the government spent $1 million outfitting Halden with art, his main complaint is that foreigners shouldn't exploit the welfare system: "Halden should only be for Norwegian criminals."
But in general, Norway's cultural values and attitudes toward crime mean the public sees no need to push for tougher penalties or harsher prisons. In Halden, the local community sees the prison as an opportunity for jobs, not as something to fear. The majority of Norwegian prisoners don't pose a serious threat to society. Nearly three-fourths of those released in 2009 had spent less than 90 days in jail for crimes such as drunk driving and petty theft, and that same year police investigated just 29 murders in a country of 4.8 million people. Bastoy's policy on escapees demonstrates how little people worry about criminals out in the community. Nilsen, the governor, makes a deal with inmates when they arrive. "If you run away, please telephone us as soon as possible so we know you are O.K. and won't need to make use of helicopters,'" he says, noting there have been just three incidents in the past two years. "They always ring and say, 'I'm all right. I'm safe.'"
The national media's portrayal of crime also helps foster tolerance for Norway's prison system. Newspapers rely on subscriptions rather than newsstand sales, so they don't depend on sensational headlines. And the writing style is less emotional, more pragmatic, than in other countries. In his book When Children Kill Children: Penal Populism and Political Culture, American criminologist David Green compares the British media's reaction to a murder case in which children tortured and killed a child with a similar case in Norway. The British newspapers, he writes, portrayed the murder as "alarmingly symptomatic of deep-seated moral decline in Britain." The Norwegian papers, however, presented their case as "a tragic one-off, requiring expert intervention to facilitate the speedy reintegration of the boys responsible." In Norway, acts of extreme violence are seen as aberrant events, not symptoms of national decay.
Beyond the Walls
Despite the exceptional conditions in Norway's prisons, it's still a challenge for someone who's incarcerated to learn how to live in freedom. Thomas Mathiesen, co-founder of the Norwegian Association of Penal Reform and professor emeritus at the University of Oslo, says amenities shouldn't blind people to that reality. "If you consider the possibility of spending three months or three years in a hotel like the Continental in Oslo with guards all around, you can [see how] even the most humane prisons present a series of problems."
The government agrees. Although it has no plans to shut down its prisons completely, there is momentum to expand alternative sanctions like an electronic-monitoring program, which currently allows around 100 criminals sentenced to four months or less to serve their time at home, limiting disruption to their families' lives.
The government is also keen to set up more so-called "open prisons" like the Sandaker facility in downtown Oslo. Situated on the ground floor of a residential apartment building, Sandaker houses 16 inmates who work in the city during the day and return to the apartment in the evening. In order to be released, residents (they're not called inmates) must first secure employment. Lars Oster, Sandaker's head, says that allowing convicts to spend the last stretch of their sentences at the facility helps ease their transition from imprisonment to freedom. Residents pay rent, clean their own clothes, take out cell-phone contracts and have access to the Internet many for the first time in their lives. "Prisons are like bubbles. They're safe, you always have food, you know what to expect," Oster says. "Here, you have to face reality and prepare yourself mentally and practically for life on the outside."
Back on Bastoy, Lars has been thinking about life on the outside for nine years the first eight in a high-security prison, and the past year on the island. Despite the idyllic scenes farm, fjord, fresh air Bastoy punishes him every day. Sure, he now knows that cows are more affectionate than horses, but that doesn't make up for having to watch his four children grow up from afar. "It makes you tired," he says, pointing out that he has to be counted by guards four times a day, submit to random drug tests and return to his chalet by 11 p.m. every night. "I'm grown up now," he says. "I'm too old for this."
But he still has two years to go before parole. In the meantime, he runs a bicycle-repair shop in a converted shed and organizes group sessions for prisoners who want to become better fathers. He's active in the community, but says he won't miss it. "I don't know if I'll commit crime or do drugs again," he says taking a drag on a cigarette. "I hope not. I don't want to visit this place again." If Norway's prisons fulfill their promise, he won't have to.